At least 56 Africans have died violently, some reportedly beaten or doused with acid by smugglers, as the new season of people smuggling gathers steam across the Gulf of Aden in a perilous exodus that takes tens of thousands of Somalis and Ethiopians to Yemen every year, the United Nations refugee agency reported today.
In the past 10 days the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recorded the arrival of 12 boats carrying 925 Somalis, Ethiopians and others. Another smuggler’s boat apparently failed to reach Yemen after encountering problems about 100 kilometres west of Bosaso in Somalia’s Puntland region. The trafficking regularly resumes in September after the summer’s storms subside.
At least 100 Somalis aboard one vessel reportedly made it back to shore in Somalia after being adrift for six days. “Many of them had been beaten, and some were reportedly doused with acid by the smugglers,” UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva. “The bodies of those who did not survive the six-day ordeal were reportedly thrown overboard. We do not have the numbers of those who died there.”
The most recent arrivals in Yemen said they had been beaten by smugglers during the trip and 24 people on their boat died – three from beatings, 11 who had been crammed into the hold, and 10 who drowned in deep waters offshore. Once they reached shore, they came under fire from Yemeni military forces, they told UNHCR.
The migrants, mostly from volatile areas in strife-torn Somalia and the increasingly unstable Ogaden zone in Ethiopia, said they paid between $70 and $150 to make the crossing. Two Sudanese among the group said they wanted to seek asylum in Yemen.
“The deaths in the Gulf of Aden are a reminder of the risks taken every year by thousands of people resorting to smugglers in the Gulf of Aden, the Mediterranean and other waters,” Mr. Redmond declared, noting that in recent months international agencies working in Somalia had set up a joint task force to better address the problem.
UNHCR has scaled up its presence to some 25 staff in Somalia’s northern Puntland region and is preparing as a first step, along with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and International Organization for Migration (IOM), an information campaign to warn people of the risks they face in using smugglers.
Leaflets are being prepared for distribution by outreach teams all over Puntland and Somaliland, also in the north. Radio spots are being developed and UNHCR is working on improving access to asylum and basic services inside Somalia for those in need of international protection. This could offer a safer alternative for refugees and internally displaced.
“While we are hoping that such measures will decrease the number of departures, they will be far from sufficient to bring the movement to a halt,” Mr. Redmond stressed. “Root causes like war, human rights violations, persecution and poverty force people to leave their homes, and unless these are properly addressed, the tragedy will continue.”
So far this year more than 10,000 people have reportedly arrived in Yemen in 103 boats. At least 282 people died and 159 remain missing and presumed dead. In 2006, nearly 29,000 people were recorded arriving in Yemen in 237 boats, at least 328 died and 310 others were recorded as missing.
Somalis registered at the UNHCR’s reception centre in Yemen said they left due to conflict, arbitrary killings, the threat of detention, drought and lack of work. Somalis account for half the migrant flow and most have fled conflict in southern and central parts of the country, including Mogadishu, the capital. There are nearly 90,000 registered refugees in Yemen, almost all of them Somalis.